A New Poem, an Invitation, & Thoughts on Religion and the Arts

Column by Cassandra Farrin on 17 August 2017 0 Comments

As some of you are already aware, I am in the middle of a project retelling early Christian texts as poems, tentatively titled Apocryphal Monologues. Each poem pairs modern-day ethical questions with words from an ancient text, putting them into dialogue with one another. In some cases I am retelling whole texts, such as On the Origin of the World. In others, as in the poem above, I engage with a single episode or saying. Along with miscarriage, the poems so far address nuclear meltdowns, the arms race, rape, abortion, and the feminine as a legitimate expression of the divine. I don’t want the poems to be preachy; I try not to moralize. I’m more interested in asking difficult questions of the texts and demanding emotionally honest answers.

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A friend recently suggested that Christianity arguably emphasizes forgiveness more than other major religions, the reason being that Jesus, viewed as illegitimate by his community, was mocked and taunted as a young man. Perhaps Mary was as well.

Being on the wrong end of discrimination, he was led to cultivate an attitude of forgiveness towards those who attacked him. Any thoughts on this idea?


Dear Bruce,

That’s an interesting angle. Certainly radical forgiveness was around in the Judeo tradition prior to Jesus. Many stories throughout the Hebrew Scriptures cite God as incredibly forgiving (except when he’s not, that is). And the idea of Jubilee found in Leviticus is one of the most radical examples of them all.

But you do hit on a point that Jesus made it much more personal. To Jesus, the idea of forgiveness didn’t need to be mandated via law code, but rather entrenched within the hearts of individuals. He taught forgiveness as a spiritual practice for one’s own joy and contentment.

That said, I also think that the arts of ‘letting go’ and ‘non attachment’ are very similar to the brand of forgiveness that was taught by Jesus - and it was around for some time in eastern religions prior to the life of Jesus, such as with Confucius and Buddha. Those enlightened teachers recognized clearly that holding in their pain, anger, and resentment would hurt and hinder the feeler / thinker of those thoughts far more than they would help.

So it would seem to me that any enlightened being would quickly come to the conclusion of forgiveness being a core component to spiritual advancement.

Was Jesus shaped by the tumultuous life he led? He probably was very much. But I think any great spiritual leader would recognize forgiveness to be a foundational practice, including the Buddha (Siddhartha) who grew up in the lap of luxury and privilege which was very different from Jesus. And I think within the Levitical law community Jesus was certainly revolutionary in his take on forgiveness, but as compared to other religions I think it’s low ante table stakes in its level of uniqueness.

~Eric Alexander


Bishop John Shelby Spong Revisited

The Bible and Homosexuality - The Church's Dance in the 21st Century - Part 1


"Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: It is an abomination (Lev.18: 22 KJV)."

"If a man also lie with mankind as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: They shall surely be put to death, their blood be upon them (Lev. 20:13.)"

This is the Word of the Lord?

The primary issue rending the Christian Church during the last fifty has been the seemingly unending battle over homosexuality. It has not been a flattering battle among Christians, since they have used all of the weapons that godless people use - blackmail, character assassination, deliberate disinformation, threats of civil war, secession, schism and even hints of murder. It has been, in reality, a battle of consciousness with one side refusing to enter a new vision, the integrity of which they do not believe, and the other standing inside a totally different perspective that no longer affirms the generally assumed moral values of the past.

As one might expect, the Bible, quoted as if it is the ultimate authority, has become the primary weapon used in this debate. Typical of this attitude is the Reverend Peter Moore, an Anglican evangelical and a self styled champion of what he calls 'biblical morality,' who has stated: "There is nothing more certain than that the Bible condemns homosexuality. If the homosexuals win this battle, then the Bible will have no moral authority left in any area of life." It is an interesting claim and reveals just how traumatic this debate has become for the traditional Bible-quoters. Those texts of the Bible, which have historically been used to define homosexual persons as evil, are destined to be challenged as a new consciousness emerges, just as similar texts on a host of other issues have each in turn been challenged and finally overthrown.

If the Bible is believed to be the dictated word of God or even the inspired truth of God, a phrase that gives fundamentalists a little more wiggle room, then the battle in the Church over the full acceptance of gay and lesbian people becomes a life and death struggle for both this understanding of the Bible, and the kind of Christianity which rests upon it. People think that this means primarily evangelical Protestant Christianity but I believe it to be a powerful threat to every part of Christianity. A study of the formation of the dogmas, doctrines, liturgies and creeds, that under gird all of Christianity, finally rests on an assumption that the Bible is in some sense, the word of God. I believe that this claim can no longer be maintained in any literal sense, which means that the entire Christian enterprise is, to use the biblical image, a house built on sand and its foundation can no longer bear the weight of the superstructure that has been erected upon it. Collapse of that structure is therefore imminent and that reality is already unconsciously perceived. That is why the battle over homosexuality is marked with such bitterness and intensity. It is a life and death struggle for Christianity as it is traditionally understood.

The Achilles heel for those claiming biblical authority to justify their prejudices turns out to be nothing less than the Bible itself. This 'holy book' is filled with attitudes that thinking people now reject. Peter Moore adopts incredibly convoluted rhetoric when trying to separate his version of 'biblical morality' from the other texts he does not wish to defend. That always happens when authority systems die. In this series I will let the Bible speak for itself and ask 21st century Christians to judge the credibility of the ancient claim that the Bible is in any literal sense 'the word of God.' Evil, I believe must be confronted even when it appears in a source regarded as sacred, for the harm that evil does is no less harmful when based on a sacred text.

In this effort to expose these texts for what they are, I begin first with the oft-quoted passages in Leviticus, which have been used for centuries to justify the rejection, abuse and oppression of gay and lesbian people. I want to concentrate on the real people who are on the receiving end of the violence that these texts have been used to justify. I have met young adults across America and around the world, who tried to face their homosexual orientation in their families of origin and were told that they must deny this reality and seek medical and psychiatric help to become 'normal.' That was frequently the condition for remaining part of the family. When this violent and destructive pseudo treatment was either not accepted or proved to be ineffective, these young men were then thrown out of their homes, disowned and told never to return. Lest my readers think this is a rare occurrence, I assure you that these victims are legion. With my mind's eye I see their very real faces.

One of them was so poignant that it still haunts me. A young gay man in his mid-thirties was estranged from his parents even though they did not know that he was gay. His family was one in which homosexuals were verbally ridiculed and condemned constantly. Perhaps his parents suspected their own son might have "tendencies" in that direction and believed that this overtly hostile attitude toward homosexuality just might be the necessary corrective he needed to come out on the right side of this issue. It did not work and when this young man went to the university, he began to cut his family ties. He seldom wrote and rarely visited his home, finding those visits stifling. He could not be who he was and he could never be who his parents wanted him to be. It was an irreconcilable reality.

Upon graduation, this young man took a job across the country and his relationship with his parents grew even weaker. Eventually, he was diagnosed with HIV AIDS and told he might live only a year. His dying desire was to be reconciled with his parents. He sought the help of a Methodist Chaplain for advice as to how to approach his parents. Together they decided on a letter rather than a face-to-face meeting or telephone call. This would allow his parents time to react and think about their response. So the letter was written and mailed -- a young man telling his parents that he was gay, that he had AIDS, that he was dying, and that he yearned above all other things to be reunited with them before he died. He asked for the privilege of seeing them soon. A week later a response was received and this young man again sought out his chaplain friend, so that he did not have to open this letter alone. Inside the envelope was a blank piece of stationery containing this young man's birth certificate ripped into shreds.

I recall a sign carried by a counter demonstrator in the New York City Gay Pride Parade in the 90s that announced. "God said fags should die! Leviticus 20." More than one gay man or suspected gay man has learned that people have treated that particular text quite literally. The slang word "faggot," by which gay people are sometimes known, was originally the name of the little sticks used to ignite the fires that burned the "queers" at the stake. So many were burned over the years of Christian history that the name of the stick became the name of the victim.

These are just some of the people who are the victims of these texts. Their counterparts are present in every century. Recently the American public's attention was vividly captured by the murder in Wyoming of a young college student named Matthew Shepard. Set upon by a gang of males in their mid-twenties, Shepard was brutally beaten until unconscious, then fastened to a fence post in a crucifixion-like pose and left in sub-freezing weather until he died. His tormentors were serving God and obeying God's word that they found in Leviticus 20, where persons assumed to be guilty of the "crime" of homosexuality were ordered by God "to be put to death." It was the punishment prescribed for what Leviticus 18 had called an "abomination."

These texts, written in the 6th century B.C.E. are in the same book, in which the death penalty was required for cursing (24:14), blasphemy (24:16) and dishonoring your parents (20:9). Leviticus also enjoined dietary laws upon the Jewish people (20:9) and prescribed many other prohibitions now long abandoned. Yet the texts regarding homosexuality, reinforced by the ignorance and discrimination of the ages, are still literalized and used to justify dreadful, even murderous, behavior, carried out against those whose only fault, or as religious people might prefer, "only sin," was that they were born with a sexual orientation different from the majority.

The overwhelming consensus of the medical and scientific world today suggests that sexual orientation is a given like gender, skin pigmentation and left-handedness. One's sexual orientation is not normally a moral choice. It is a description of one's being, not one's doing. It is therefore not morally culpable. The texts in Leviticus 18 and 20 are simply wrong. Based on ignorance, they should be viewed with other abandoned attitudes as stages in our development that we have outgrown. To quote these texts today to justify continued prejudice destroys what Christians say they believe about God, and the Christ who invited all to come to him to find rest from their labors. The very depth of Christianity is violated if the texts of Leviticus 18-20 are given legitimacy. The time has come for all Christians to decide which of these two paths is the way to follow Christ. There can be no compromise. The contending positions are mutually exclusive. There must be no wavering. Leviticus 18 and 20 cannot be allowed to remain in the lexicon of Christian behavior.

"Those texts do not stand alone in the Bible," my Bible quoting critics will say. "They are but a small part of a larger biblical condemnation of homosexuality!" Fair enough, so I will turn to the others. Next I will focus on Genesis 19, the chapter that has given us the words 'sodomy' and 'sodomite,' as our examination of the Bible's role in our cultural homophobia continues.

~ Bishop John Shelby Spong
Originally Published March 31, 2004




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